The great Golden State gave its citizens the Solar Rights Act in 1978, then the net-metering act of 2002, and never looked back to become the golden child of solar energy in the United States. But a new chapter is upon us.
Municipal utilities, sensing the ground gain of behind-the-meter battery storage, are smelling blood from their own life line: exclusivity of energy management. By creating design requirements that stifle one’s ability to interconnect a battery system, among other things, municipalities are discouraging the implementation of distributed energy resources. If you have ever tried commissioning a battery system in LADWP territory, you know what I’m talking about. These utility interests are fighting to close off what they consider a potentially damaging encroachment, by making it difficult to operate your own power while interconnected, and probably expensive to do so, if they have their way.
The Situational Precipice
In an attempt to update the Solar Bill of Rights, California SB 288 requires utilities to expedite processing of battery system interconnections, and to keep interconnection fees to a minimum. To quote the Senate brief, “Senate Bill 288 would enable greater deployment of customer-sited distributed energy resources (DER) by recognizing that all Californians have the right to generate and store their own renewable electricity without undue interference from their local electric utility (emphasis mine). SB 288 would also address two of the main challenges facing DER consumers: outdated tariffs that do not encourage energy storage and barriers impeding interconnection of DERs to the electric grid.”
Opponents are, principally, the state’s municipal utilities, perhaps because PG&E and other private power companies are currently sidelined by disaster-related issues. Anti-Bill of Rights forces are pointing to the $1.15 million dollars this would cost state agencies in enforcement responsibilities; they point out that they are taking care of the California greening agenda by investing in their own solar farms. The pressure is apparently working and, prey to the process of reviewing proposed laws and their consequential budgetary impact for the following year, SB288 finds itself in a pile of some 120 bills that the Senate Appropriations committee is reviewing to kill within the next 3 days. Got that? As I write this, we Californians have just a few dozen hours to keep utilities from shutting citizens and corporate consumers out of the right to own power.
A call comes from Bernadette Del Chiaro, Executive Director of the California Solar and Storage Association. It so happens that the chairman of the Appropriations committee, Senator Anthony Portantino, is someone from my home town, and he is probably the deciding voice in whether this bill goes to the floor or not. If it goes to the floor of our progressive chambers, it will most likely pass. But it might simply die unknown, without a whimper of a chance, unless we act. “Get on a plane first thing Monday” she orders. “We have to see the chairman”.
Monday, May 13, 2019
5AM, Los Angeles – Grab an Uber to LAX – Read the briefs on the bill and its opponents. Make notes on the plane, re-read the bill.
9:00AM – Arrive at the Capitol and meet the team with whom we are hoping to save AB288 from the chopping block. Present are Bernadette Del Chiaro of CalSSA, a member of the SunRun team who runs their legislative actions, and a fellow LA energy executive.
9:30 AM – We check into Senator Portantino’s office to let him know we would like to wedge ourselves into his schedule. It’s an overwhelmingly busy day today for the Appropriations committee, as they review 120 bills and have to hear from all the different interests aiming to either ensure their individual deaths or survival, depending on the bias.
10:00AM – We meet the bill’s author, Senator Jim Nielsen (R, 4th District), and congratulate him on the sponsorship; “we’re going to fight for it” he hears us say. We then go to the Appropriations committee room and watch a grey-goateed Senator Portantino expertly push through public comments on most of the 120 bills in review. Stepping quickly to the mic, I make my comments of “strong support” as does each member of our team, on AB288…all of us in about 30 seconds. But “that was just to set the stage”, we all nod.
11:30AM to 2:00PM – We wait for news of access in the Statehouse Café, where you overhear the most interesting conversations, as folks craddle their latté and chomp on their salads while dissecting political strategies to bend the fate of the state. I run into several committed environmentalists working on various bills, none on the Solar Bill of Rights.
Word comes. The Senator will see us for five minutes just before his 2pm committee session.
The author (center) with Bernadette Del Chiaro, Executive Director of California Solar and Storage Association (left) and California Senator Anthony “Tony” Portantino.
1:50PM – We crowd into the modest offices of one of California politic’s most powerful men, five of us including his honorable-self, jammed elbow to elbow. Anthony “Tony” Portantino has a disarmingly modest demeanor, and makes you feel at ease. Both of his pinkies’ finger nails are painted purple, compliments of his younger daughter, he says, who gets to pick the color. We talk about his last election victory over an illustrious L.A. political name, how great that goatee is, then dig into business.
This is why SB288 must get to the floor
We are at a pivotal time in California’s energy history. Distributed energy resources have finally hit stride, and it is time for utilities to be checked so that they do not stand in the way of progress.
- California businesses have rapidly increasing energy-related operating demands. They want to “normalize” their energy costs (make them predictable), just as Southwest Airlines famously did when they began buying their fuel deep into the future and were able to beat out their competition as fuel costs rose. We can now do the same with solar and storage, and we need that right to remain competitive.
- California businesses and homeowners need reliability in the face of increasing unreliability of service. Winds, fires, earthquakes, floods all threaten the ability of utilities to deliver energy to their meters. We can now do that with solar and storage, and we need that right to remain operating and safe at all times.
- Utilities have not proven themselves to have the best interest of rate payers in mind. They primarily focus on investor interests, union interests or electricity control. Californians need the right to independently deploy electrons for themselves and into the grid.
Californians have spoken, and they want a green future made of distributed solar energy, energy freedom, electrification of transportation, and storage of their own power or the power they purchase from the utility. The $1.15 million stated by the budget office as the associated cost to oversee the roll-out of AB288 represents a small fraction of what the utilities spend yearly to protect their interests, a proverbial drop-in-the-bucket… said bucket being the huge California economy and the competitive advantage it will gain by allowing each meter to become master of its energy future.
“I’ll look into this” nods the Senator. “ I haven’t heard much from the other side. Thanks for coming up.”
In a few days, we Californians will know to whom the future of energy belongs.
Philippe Hartley facilitates commercial financing on behalf of the leading C-PACE funders and tax equity providers in the US, and is the Managing Director of CleanFinancing.com. Reach him at [email protected].